Séverine is a wilting Daylily; her per annus excursions into self-destructive sexual encounters are rooted in the deep trauma of childhood and religious oppression. Director Luis Buñuel’s intimate portrait of a troubled young lady is painted with compassion and a vibrant physical urgency, a film that seems less about sexual liberation and more about post traumatic stress disorder.
The beautiful Catherine Deneuve imbues Séverine with a prim and proper seductive quality; a seething concoction of basic human desires whose obsessive nature begins to dominate her life. Buñuel begins the film with jingling bells as she and her husband share a carriage ride on a lovely afternoon. Suddenly, he becomes angry with her cold demeanor and allows her to be dragged naked through the woods where she is whipped and ravaged by the carriage drivers…while he watches. This turns out to be one of Séverine’s orgasmic fantasies, which we soon realize are always preceded by the ringing of bells; a wonderful aural punctuation mark that helps the viewer discern hardened reality from her degrading conceits. She imagines herself raped, emotionally abused, and dehumanized by being covered in dung. But her daytime affairs are none the less fatal: she can not give her body to her adoring husband so she becomes a prostitute between the hours of 2 to 5 PM each weekday, filling her empty spaces with the viscid fluid of strangers.
Buñuel expertly conveys her dormant past in two quick flashbacks, both as she contemplates her new occupation: one is an objective memory of herself being touched by a grimy workman as a child, alluding to a sexual assault; and the other is her refusal to take communion, a telling image of a young girl adamantly refusing to open her mouth, a silent oral confirmation of her guilt and victimization. She begins to enjoy her new job but has become trapped within her own flesh and bone, because she loves her patient husband…a doctor who will soon become her patient.
A young man becomes infatuated with Séverine and suddenly her fantasy life intrudes upon reality and this roguish youth attempts to murder her husband, leaving him paralyzed and dysfunctional. Buñuel’s homage to Godard is mimicked in the street vendor selling the Herald Tribune and later, as the young man is gunned down in the street by the police leaving him (and the audience) breathless. Finally, dressed as a schoolgirl, regressed back to her childhood, she realizes that she can now take care of her husband without ever having to become intimate…and can live an illusion of a happy marriage.
Final Grade: (A)